On the Fallacy of ‘Subtle’ Racism


The history of British racism casts a long, dark shadow. As a capitalist, imperialist state, it has always been and remains deeply racist. But when confronted with its racism, its flagrant super-exploitation of racialised people, the default position of the British state is to deny, silence and hide behind the violent excesses of another empire- America. These denials and silences are apparent in the words of historians who as Walter Rodney points out in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, ‘proclaim that colonialism was not essentially economic, and that the colonisers did not gain’ or present the argument that colonial governments did much for the benefit and development of the colonized.[1]

They are apparent in the pronouncements of the conservative commentariat boasting of British exceptionalism as the first nation to abolish slavery - it was Haiti - and in Boris Johnson’s speech addressing the global revolts against police terror and racism, in which he states: ‘the death of George Floyd took place thousands of miles away, in another country, under another jurisdiction’, whilst praising the ‘great strides’ Britain has made in overcoming racism.

Such statements are merely a few examples of a harmful ideology embedded in British society, one which never fails to reappear when police brutally murder black people in the US. The pernicious myth of ‘subtle’ or ‘covert’ British racism, deals in a politics of visibility and respectability, which hierachizes forms of racist violence and gives the oppressor power to decide what is and is not violent. It is predicated on, to borrow Jackie Wang's phrase ‘a liberal politics of recognition’[2], which centralizes the perception of black people’s suffering by a white imaginary as the only grounds upon which serious action can be taken. It provides a blank cheque for the continuation of racist terror towards black and brown people and so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ in a manner deemed acceptable and respectable by the state.

The need to hierarchize racism is itself a racist act. It is one that goes on to produce more harm and violence in black, brown, migrant, queer, trans, disabled and working class communities, through its casual dismissal and erasure. The urgency of refuting statements that suggest Britain is less racist, or does not wield its racism with a lethal force equal to that of the US does not belong to this moment alone, but rather fits into a broader struggle against the many ways in which Britain has sought to efface its own record on racist violence, by projecting an image of civility and tolerance in comparison to the US.

Britain’s self-image as an ‘equal and diverse’ nation, and the weaponization of those terms as tools for imperial violence does not begin in our age of ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives. Such tactics, alongside ‘divide and rule’, the elevation of collaborators- for instance raising Africans willing to cooperate with the British to positions of power- and the use of brute unrelenting force, have been employed very successfully by the rulers of the British Empire, over generations, in order to maintain their dominion over millions of colonized people and their descendants, both within the country and outside it.

In his article ‘How The Empire is Governed’ from the July 1932 edition of The Negro Worker, Pan-Africanist and Communist writer George Padmore, issues an impassioned rebuke of this same false self-representation made use of by British imperialists as a means of strengthening their yoke over the oppressed. He takes aim at the ‘shrewd and cunning’ imperialists, whom he argues ‘foster illusions among the Negro Colonial masses’ in order to deceive them ‘into the true mission of these whites in the colonies.’ Foremost of these illusions is that there is ‘no colour prejudice in England. That the Union Jack is the symbol of ‘justice’ and ‘fairplay’ for all, whether white or black, rich or poor, high or low.’ Yet the notion of equality and fairness in the supposed ‘mother-country’ was, as Padmore writes, an oft-repeated lie, when Negroes were treated ‘hardly any better than chattel slaves, or a pariah race.’ [3]

Padmore’s words are useful for contextualising the racist denialism long perpetuated by the British state and their imperial lackeys. He goes on to make a direct comparison between British and American imperialism. He writes that while the ‘Yankee imperialist’ will treat the ‘inferior’ races from the colonies Haiti, Hawaii and the Philippines as well as black American citizens with ‘open contempt’, unafraid to wound their sensibilities, the ‘English exploiter’ on the other hand ‘will shake hands and even dine with some bourgeois Negro in Jamaica, or one from another of the colonies who could be used as a tool to further the interest of British imperialism.’[4]

Yet underneath this mask of peaceful, paternalistic civility, the empire is deadly; there is no shortage of imperial atrocities which show that Britain is extremely fluent in the language of state repression and domination. It was one of the first nations to speak this sacrificial tongue, where words mingle with blood and death and profit. From sugar plantations in the West Indies, the massacre of dissenting civilians in Armistrar, India, to Keenie Meenie services and the Iraq war, historical and present-day evidence of Britain’s imperial crimes abound.

But we must not stop at simply establishing that Britain is racist and provide relevant examples to counter those who say otherwise. Our struggle should not be relegated to the defensive mode, to the constant reiteration and revelation of the suffering from which our past and present is composed. We must also work to understand why and how these unhelpful and uncritical comparisons between Britain and the US remain so persistent in the popular imagination and in state discourse, as well as ascertain their effect in order to finally eradicate them.

What does the idea of ‘subtle’ racism do to our ability to grasp the precise character of contemporary British racism and imperialism? For one, it acts as a kind of mental buffer through which liberals and conservatives can block out the more gruesome and ubiquitous aspects of racism in the UK, which they choose not to see or act upon, due to their role in the maintenance of the oppressive structures (white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism) that make racism possible. Meanwhile the presence of this buffer allows them to selectively champion Black Lives Matter when the moment calls for it.

The liberal and conservative tendency to focus on specific moments of racist violence, which are often geographically remote, highly visible and easily consumed through videos circulated on the internet, results in a heightened moral and emotional response to what they have witnessed. This state of mawkish sympathy takes primacy over the actual death in question, over all the deaths which are not named and do not attract attention. The liberal’s sense of their own awareness in this moment of collective recognition of the state’s horrific violations of black life, inflates their perceived moral stature. Moral elevation becomes a salve, its comforting presence absolving them from undertaking any substantial action or reparative work, and thus cementing their place in the theatre of racist cruelty.

Since their displeasure is not directed at a system of overwhelming oppression, but at singular cases where the victim of racist state violence has been constructed as a subject worthy of empathy, those who believe that the UK is less racist simply because it murders fewer black people then ignore the racism perpetuated by the British state. To them the fires that engulfed Grenfell Tower in 2017 and the New Cross fire in 1981 are inexplicable, the higher mortality rate from COVID-19 amongst people of colour a genetic dysfunction. Under this schematization, the UK is less violent or racist, only because it has fewer public lynchings.

This view is both divisive and dangerous for many reasons, not least because it enacts a grievous injustice towards all those who have died at the hands of the British state. It also has the effect of plastering over the distinct histories of black people in Britain, the unique patterns of their oppression and their rich organising traditions. While there are undoubtedly commonalities between the dispossession and exploitation endured by black people in Britain and the US, to conflate black history and people so that they constitute one monolithic Americanized mass, demeans the suffering experienced by black people around the world as a result of the conjoined forces of racism, capitalism and imperialism.

One form of conflation and reduction is the argument that police violence and mass incarceration are wholly American problems. This way of thinking works to obscure the enormity of Britain’s carceral apparatus, where a vast network of police officers, border guards, detention wardens and security officers, surveill, police and harm the country’s most marginalized communities. It also conceals Britain’s role in the creation of the global prison industrial complex, through systems of colonial prisons and policing that were its legacy across large swathes of its former empire.

British Policing is the direct consequence of the colonial policing practices used to subdue dissenting populations. From India to Kenya, the police were instrumental in the confiscation and protection of occupied land and property, forging and preserving an unequal and exploitative system which placed the European community at the top and the local population at the bottom. The fruits of this brutality can still be felt today.

When black people began migrating from colonized nations in the late 1940s, police power was transferred from the colony to the metropole in order to control and dominate black settlers. In the 1987 report ‘Policing against Black People’ by the Institute of Race Relations, they note that the distrust between black people and the police originates from their experience of the police as ‘occupying force.’[5] Yet the perverted logic of ‘subtle’ British racism views the threatening and predatory actions of the police, in a country that has the highest prison population in Western Europe, where people of colour are more likely to be stopped and searched, to have police concentrated in their communities, as normal and acceptable. These acts of violence are invisible to the purveyors of ‘covert’ racism, as their conception of racist violence deserving of attention requires constant death. We must resist this logic that only pretends to care about black people when they are dead, when they have experienced the most extreme forms of violence at the hands of the state and perished.

As stated by A. Sivanandan in Deadly Silence: Black Deaths in Custody ‘one death is a death too many.’[6] We must abolish prisons and police and the social conditions that make them possible.

An important component of British imperialism is the portrayal of the state as colour-blind or non-racist, a phenomenon Joseph Chamberlain’s remarks at the Imperial Conference in 1898 attests to: ‘the traditions of the Empire, which makes no distinction in favour of, or against, race or colour’[7]. This allows for the continuation of racist state violence under a different guise or name. Another way in which Britain shields itself from the charge of racism while being resolutely racist is through the configuration of the country’s black and brown populations as an alien, immigrant race, whose rights and citizenship can be stripped at will. Nowhere is this more clear than in the decades long systemic devaluation of the lives and rights of the Windrush generation. Actively recruited by the British Empire, they arrived as one newspaper headline describes as ‘five hundred pairs of willing hands’[8], and from that moment were consigned to difficult, back-breaking work.

Despite British industries' demand for workers - Peter Fryer notes that in April 1956 to 1966 London Transport began recruiting staff in Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica[9]- immigration laws were brought into being that had the dual effect of defining black and migrant life according to its labour and material contribution to the state and placing them on a lower citizenship status vulnerable to the incursion of immigration laws. These acts, such as the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Bill stipulated that all Commonwealth passport holders needed to apply for a work voucher, graded according to the applicant’s employment prospects.

Similar immigration laws, instituted by both Labour and Conservative governments laid the foundation for the ‘hostile environment’ as it exists today. What they accomplished was a method of making ‘racism respectable and clinical by institutionalising it.’[10] By shifting the grounds of citizenship and Britishness and the security both represent, so that it fails to encompass black and brown people, Britain has found a way to continue its racism by forcibly excising people of colour and then shedding responsibility and blame for what happens to those it no longer considers British. In both theory and practice, it is racism as a form of violent displacement.

The British state knows how to carefully package and disseminate its racism. It has dressed up the blatant discrimination of its punitive immigration laws in the language of economic sense, of ‘skilled and unskilled’ labour. This allows the state to carry on its legacy of extraction and exploitation, where they are simultaneously eager for migrants to work in NHS hospitals, but refuse to give them access to public funds or make the NHS free for them to use. Further, the needless deaths of black, brown and migrant workers during this pandemic have been presented as heroic and ennobling self-sacrifice instead of the social destruction brought on by austerity and neoliberalism that they are symptomatic of. By encouraging and advancing this exercise in racist denial and oblivious nation building, they have found a way to normalize mass death. The state has succeeded in making the conditions of death possible and likely for some, whilst avoiding blame, instead their propagation of the individualising rhetoric of ‘heroes’ and ‘heroism’ would like us to believe that those people chose to die. This is a racism that kills and then claims that you desired death. Policy nuances and veiled speech cannot disguise virulent racism, it cannot wash the blood off their hands.

The duplicity behind ‘subtle’ racism and its accompanying comparisons of the US and the UK are not new. They only work to justify racism and oppression, they favor the oppressor and not the oppressed. However, these detrimental comparisons and purposeful obfuscations do not negate the possibilities to be found in transnational solidarity, which enables us to resist the racism of imperial governments. To return once more to the George Padmore essay, where Padmore invokes the power of international working class solidarity:

‘like the British, French, and other imperialist powers with colonial possessions in Africa, the Yankee imperialists are carrying on the most ferocious attacks upon the living conditions of Negro masses, but we want to assure our readers in America, that no matter what difficulties the imperialists put in our way, the ‘Negro Worker’ will continue to carry on the struggle in mobilizing the millions of black proletarians in the colonies against hunger, unemployment, taxation, lynch law, forced labour, imperialist war.’[11]

His emphasis on the interrelatedness of the ‘ferocious attacks’ on black Americans and the oppression of those colonized by the ‘British, French, and other imperialist powers’ is useful for us today. Padmore’s words show that our struggles are long and interconnected and it is even more necessary now to heed them, when imperialist and neocolonial states continue their racialised subjugation albeit through practices adapted to suit current divisions.

Power dynamics no longer maintain a global north and global south divide but work across territories to form alliances with other nation states in order to oppress marginalized groups. The UK’s own systemic Islamophobia and its alignment with Modi’s regime, as well as the government’s silence and inaction on the annexation of the West Bank by Israel, are only two of many examples. Black revolutionary consciousness emerges from this exact understanding of the global nature of racism and imperialism. An understanding which brings people together in solidarity and struggle. This spirit is present in the movement unfolding before us, everywhere in the world, in the fight to end racism, capitalism and imperialism.

Gazelle Mba is a freelance writer and one of the editors of Nommo, a political and cultural magazine dedicated to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist internationalisms. Her writing has appeared in Another Gaze, and Worms magazine and is forthcoming elsewhere.

[1]Rodney, Walter, (2018). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Verso p. 319

[2] Wang, Jackie (2018). Carceral Capitalism, Semiotext p. 263.

[3] Padmore, George. (1932). ‘How the Empire is Governed’, The Negro Worker 7(2). p. 4.

[4] Padmore, George. p. 5.

[5] Institute of Race Relations. (1987). "Policing against Black People", Institute of Race Relations p.5

[6] Sivanandan, Ambalavaner. (1991). "Deadly Silence: Black Deaths in Custody", Institute of Race Relations, p.1.

[7] Sinclair, Georgina. (2017). Towards an Understanding of Colonial Policing: Exploring Policing Models,  Manchester University Press, p.10.

[8] Fryer, Peter. (1984). Staying Power the History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, p. 372.

[9] Fryer, Peter, p. 372.

[10] Fryer, Peter, p.383

[11] Padmore, George. p. 6.